10 ridiculous things a day

Trip Start Aug 26, 2007
Trip End Dec 16, 2007

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Flag of Gambia  ,
Saturday, September 15, 2007

I was told to expect 10 ridiculous things a day here, that this would have to become my status quo or I would go crazy. I think it might also be appropriate to say that there are at least that many moments during a day when whatever sense of routine or the mundane that may have managed to seep into my daily activities is crushed, leaving in its place some nagging idea, emotion or question that will then continue to swarm and pick at my thoughts the rest of the day. It is sometimes shocking sights or events that trigger these moments, like seeing kids fighting to play with rusty old razor blades they find on the ground. But it is also much simpler ones, that seem like they could have just as easily slid by and disappeared unnoticed, like the frustration and slight self-disgust we sometimes feel for literally looking down on the people in the streets as we lounge, clearly separated, on the beautiful balconies of our compound (the tallest in the neighborhood).

I'm not sure if this is normal, or if admitting to having these moments simply exposes my inexperience with traveling, or if they will slowly go away as more weeks here continue to pass. But I do have to say, even if they suck sometimes, and even if their weightiness can get in the way of the lighthearted attitude I might like to have here, I love that I have these moments. They're better than pictures when it comes to trying to capture time here before it's December and Gambia is just a memory that I'll rant enthusiastically about to anyone who mentions it.

But one example of these moments that happened this past week was especially disturbing, (probably for the humiliation and stupidity I felt after it as much as what it meant to me). Bryan, Shane, Maya and I had decided Monday afternoon, having completed our first days of classes and generally feeling like experienced tubabs, to go to the Serekunda market by ourselves for some fabric. Initially the experience was a relatively smooth one, but as we took longer and walked further, bumsters started to latch on to us and bargaining got more frustrating. I was getting exhausted by shopping, the heat, but mostly what seems to be that same lack of basic humanity and respect -that I've already talked about so much - that surrounds many of the social interactions here when people are very directly trying to get something from you. (I still haven't gotten used to this yet. I think part of the problem may just be that in the states exploitation is supposed to be much more subtle and under the surface, in addition to the fact that there is so much less need where I am from) Either way, when Bryan introduced me to a man outside of a shop who worked at our compound, and who Shane had been hanging out with a couple days ago, I was very happy to just see a friendly face. We talked to the man for a while and found out he had been married the day before. Then he offered to show us a place with cheaper fabric (Maya had had no luck bartering at this point), and asked if we wanted to meet his new wife. So we stopped by his compound and met his new wife, he got us Fantas, and told us about his large family and the orphanage his father had started up, the only one in the town. He even showed us the orphanage building, where the food was made, etc. Unfortunately, the children were all at school. Interested by the orphanage, and in gratitude for his hospitality, we offered to make a donation, which he said would go to buy the children rice. Strangely, however, when he took the money he was almost rude, expecting more money. He even actually took a 50 dalasi note out of my hand that I was planning on keeping for food and a taxi. We all left at this point, in order to make it back wolof lesson. It was only on leaving the compound that we slowly but surely began to piece together what had happened, and it was at least 5 minutes later that we knew for sure we had been conned. It was almost as if we had been under a spell, and as it slowly lifted we became frustratingly aware of our own stupidity and this man's art. He did not work at the compound even, but had guessed (well) that we lived in Kanifing, overheard Shane's name, and used this to convince Bryan that he knew Shane, Shane that he knew Bryan...and from there Maya and I were easily taken in. Still, though, there were SO MANY things that should have tipped us off, that should have prevented us from making the completely unwise decision to go to this man's compound (luckily it was not so dangerous as it could have been, the streets were busy, the compound was filled with other people, and in general the Gambian style is not well set up for violent crime, most is pick pocketing and conning). Yet we were duped by a desire to be friendly and see and know Gambian people. And this is what makes this event more than just a ridiculous story to me. Sitting there, listening to the guy talk, was one of those moments that stuck out to me, and I decided with a great amount of purpose and satisfaction that I was just being too distracted by a different style of interaction here (We consistently meet people randomly, sometimes just on the street, maybe start talking to them, or being talked to, they ask for a number, or the general place we live, and then they show up or call later, expecting to become good friends), so much that it blinded me to the common ground that I could easily find with many Gambians. I was spending too much time on the beautiful balcony of our mansion-like compound, not in the Gambia. On top of this, I decided that I had no problem giving away a good amount of money, because I simply could not deny the need for it here, and so I had to adapt to my surroundings. And then I got conned. Bad timing, to say the least, for any sort of revelation. I feel now that the situation doesn't necessarily say something bad about people and life here, but it is merely a hard truth that people will con you if you're stupid enough, and we were stupid enough, and that the market situation itself is clearly a breeding ground for this, and not so much for meeting friends. In other situations, and as long as we act intelligently, it is quite possible to be friendly and give money. But still....that unsettled feeling will not leave me.

Class itself has been interesting. We walk about 15 to 20 minutes to school everyday though a muddy street, past a cemetery, car repair shop, children screaming "tubab, tubab," donkeys, sheep, goats and even vultures. It looks as if we will have at least 5-10 other Gambians in our classes, though hopefully more will show up on Monday. I assume there are many things we'll have to get used to, beyond just the accents of our professors, but I'm thrilled about the idea of the different perspectives we'll be exposed to. Preparing for the semester and discussing coming work during class, one thing that struck me was the effort people have to put into to getting resources and books. We have many books that we bought online, but the Gambian students do not have that option. If (and that is an if) things were planned correctly, there might be one copy of a book or packet available in the university library (the size of one small room) that all students must share and cannot take out of the library. Long walks, coordination, and lots of photo-copying accompanies each reading. And even getting that one copy is a hassle. One professor is even having to travel to a different country over the weekend to get one copy of a book. In general, knowledge, or at least the idea of it and what it can facilitate, is much more passionately valued here by the students and teachers. There is not a college in every town, books do not come packed up for you at the on-campus bookstore. Most of the students have what we might consider non-traditional backgrounds for students, many have entered the workforce and come back to education. They also have a much more definite, often lofty goals for what they will do with their education. Much more is riding on their education, and in a country with only one university, where almost half the students do not pass the exam at the end of secondary school that allows them entrance into higher education, if you are one of the people going to college, you take it seriously, or at least talk about it like you do. It should be interesting to get to know some of them better.

All in all, it was a good first week of classes...more beach trips, market trips, and exploring local bars and restaurants. Especially interesting was a trip to a local artist's house for tye-dying, which just happened to be a reconstructed African village. The entire place was a work of art, there is no other way to describe it. A mixture of traditional and modern art was everywhere, hanging from the trees, painted on the mud-wall huts, but in general everything had its own unique touch of beauty, even the natural beauty of the exotic, colorful flowers, trees and grasses were often enhanced with little artistic touches. The Gambian art community (outside of more touristy crafts) is apparently fairly small, being a small, developing country, but what we have seen so far of it - batik artists, drummers and musicians - has been an intensely original, passionate mix of Gambian tradition and personal style.
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